Dining at Singita. Image: Supplied
Dining at Singita. Image: Supplied

Singita: Our Food Journey
Publisher: Coppersmith

For the average chef, running out of ingredients mid-recipe is annoying. Doing so when heading up a lodge kitchen in the middle of the Serengeti, where the nearest eggs are a Cessna trip away is considerably more stressful.

As a result, Frank Louw, former executive chef for top-end Singita camps in Tanzania, is rather the expert at creative cooking.

“Luckily, guests at home will never have to deal with a delivery arriving and a monkey stealing the only two ripe mangoes that you wanted to use in a salad you’d just placed on the menu,” Louw says.

“You have to love the remoteness of the properties — it lends itself to many interesting moments.”

Louw, now tourism general manager at Singita Serengeti, is one of the key people behind a generous 274-page company cookbook, designed to celebrate dishes tried and tested by the luxury company’s guests over the years.

Singita: Our Food Journey is laden with stand-out recipes, from international favourites such as risotto and Caesar salad to dishes that employ local ingredients such as green bananas or samp and beans.

“It is amazing how many guests want to try more local food and ask for recipes to recreate these delicious dishes,” Louw says. There is no game on the menu in the cookbook, however, presumably due to the difficulty of finding fresh kudu fillets internationally as opposed to offending those who prefer to watch wildlife rather than eat it.

Singita’s 12 lodges offer guests one of Africa’s top safari experiences and the company has long been given the nod for the quality of its table and cellars, never mind the game viewing. In the Singita Kruger camps, collaboration with top chef Liam Tomlin has added further cachet to meal times. Food is also a staple of the company’s community development initiatives: Singita trains chefs to the highest standards at dedicated cookery schools, promotes bee-keeping, and supports local vegetable farmers. This helps demonstrate the job creation potential and economic advantages of conservation.

Singita: Our Food Journey aims to showcase both top recipes as well as success stories linked to the social initiatives it champions. The cookbook was conceived by Louw and his wife Donna (also a Singita chef) and produced with creative direction manager Georgina Pennington. They aimed to produce “a day in a guest’s stay at Singita” and the book is faithful to the bounty supplied on safari, from breakfast to lunch, high tea to supper.

Interspersed with the recipes are other contextual images of wildlife, beatific views and lodge details, as well as images of staff with inspirational stories. There is Peter Andrew, who was once a poacher and now whips up pastel macarons; David Shilabi, the clerk turned vegetable farmer; and construction worker Michael Matera who went on to win a Tanzanian chef of the year award. There are also some pages devoted to the community projects supported or started by Singita, like Grumeti’s farmers’ cooperative, which had a turnover of over $250,000 in 2017.

The book doesn’t put a foot wrong when it comes to the cooking. The recipes are collected from chefs at all the Singita properties, including the Louws with their 18 years combined experience in the kitchens. Dishes appear distinctive yet often relatively simple to prepare; ingredient lists and instructions are unfussy. Basics include making fresh butter, roosterkoek and even superior baked beans.

The food photography, all by Micky Hoyle, is delectable. Plate after plate drips with flavour, much like the honey cake with honey glaze. Louw remembers shooting the rooibos panna cotta when a large, colour-coordinated moth settled on a glass just behind the sticky dish.

“It was perfect,” he says, “but almost a bit surreal”.

There is inevitably a whiff of PR about aspects of the book, such as the location shots, but sadly this extends somewhat into the “people” stories.  These stories are remarkable and elevate the cookbook to a more complex and engaging document. However, they come across as a little anaemic; the language and focus somehow depersonalised. Michael Matera’s first encounter with a lobster is an example: a visceral experience is hinted at, but would have been more powerful in his own words.

The difficulties are minor, and perhaps have much to do with the cookbook’s ambitious ambit and wide objectives. Encountering, say, photos of the Spartan but essential porridge Singita supplies to nearly 19,000 Zimbabwean schoolchildren sandwiched between sumptuously prepared meals for guests is of course awkward, but somehow important to see.

That Singita: Our Food Journey is a labour of love is obvious and endearing, and its heart is in the right place. Past guests will be jolted back to memories of their travels as they turn the pages, never mind re-experience the scents and tastes. And perhaps the wider “journey” the personal stories introduce will become tasters for another volume that explores the community initiatives in more depth.